Christian Science Church - stressing 'mission focus' - cuts real-estate costs

The First Church of Christ, Scientist, the publisher of this newspaper, Thursday announced plans for major changes in its real estate holdings, including the sale of buildings located outside Boston that have significant architectural and sentimental value.

The steps are being taken "to make certain that all of our activities and spending priorities are focused on the support ... of the healing work being done by all of our church members," said Nathan Talbot, chairman of The Christian Science Board of Directors, the church's governing body. The moves have the goal of helping reduce the 25 percent share of the organization's budget that is now spent on real estate-related costs.

The directors said they planned to sell two homes in Massachusetts where Mary Baker Eddy, the church's Founder, had lived. "This has not been an easy decision," the board said in a statement to be published in the Christian Science Journal.

Church officials stressed that economic concerns were not the primary drivers in the decision to put Mrs. Eddy's homes on the market.

Focus on healing

In an interview, Mr. Talbot explained why the homes were being sold now, after being retained for nearly a century. "There are two factors," Talbot said. "One is humanity's need for healing. And the second is a look at our membership that has been drifting downward. And why has it been drifting downward? We think part of the answer to turning that around is being better healers."

Talbot continued, "And what is going to help us be better healers? Keeping a clear focus. And what is distracting from that focus - well, there are several things, and we are setting them aside. And devoting so much of our resources to property management is one of them. That is why it is so important that people see that the financial decision is secondary. We think property management is a symbol of what can distract. We want to be free to devote every possible resource to our healing mission."

The homes are located in the communities of Lynn and Chestnut Hill. Key historical items in the homes will be preserved in accordance with curatorial standards, the board said.

The church also said it would vacate and seek revenue-producing uses for a 26-story office tower and a structure known as the Church Colonnade on its 14-acre campus in Boston's Back Bay section. Both buildings were designed by I.M. Pei & Partners and Araldo Cossutta Associated Architects. The Pei firm's work is widely discussed by architecture critics.

Since one-third of church employees have been laid off in recent years, all current employees can be housed in the Christian Science Publishing House Building at Massachusetts Avenue and Norway Street.

Church executives said they have retained Leggat McCall Properties LLC, a real estate consulting firm, to help consider other options for the organization's extensive real estate holdings near the Prudential Center, a booming area of offices, shops, and apartments.

"We want to assure the residents of Boston that we will continue to maintain the high standard of stewardship and care for the Christian Science Plaza in this community in the years and decades to come," Mr. Talbot said.

As part of its revised real estate strategy, a building the church owns in Washington, D.C., which was designed by the Pei/Cossutta team, is being sold. The seven-story structure, located two blocks from the White House on 16th Street, houses the Monitor's Washington bureau, which will move elsewhere in the city. The Washington site also includes Third Church of Christ, Scientist, whose members are examining several options to have a continued presence in downtown Washington.

Restoring Mrs. Eddy's homes in Lynn and Chestnut Hill to current museum standards would cost between $8 and $12 million, church officials said. After renovation, annual operating costs would be about $700,000. In 2002, the last year the homes were open full time to tourists, the Chestnut Hill home had 88 visitors during a typical month. The Lynn home welcomed 71.

Some of Mrs. Eddy's most significant accomplishments took place in the homes being sold. She lived at 12 Broad Street in Lynn, the first home she ever owned, from 1875 to 1882. There she completed the first edition of the denomination's textbook, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," and taught classes on spiritual healing.

Mrs. Eddy's 8.3 acre wooded estate at 400 Beacon Street in Chestnut Hill, which has 35 rooms, was her residence when she founded the Pulitzer prize-winning Christian Science Monitor and authorized the first foreign-language translation of Science and Health. After residing there two years, Mrs. Eddy passed on in 1910.

Treasurer J. Edward Odegaard said the church was not commenting on the expected sales price of the properties.

The church will continue to operate The Mary Baker Eddy Library for the Betterment of Humanity in Boston. The multimillion-dollar library, which opened in 2002, houses thousands of documents relating to Mrs. Eddy's life as well as 9,000 artifacts and art objects.

"The library preserves and provides access to her intellectual property within the context of all of her writing. And, of course, its purpose is to protect the copyright on all of her writings, whereas the homes served a different kind of purpose," board chairman Talbot said.

Proceeds to maintain Mother Church

Odegaard said the proceeds of the home sales would be placed in a fund devoted to maintaining the Original Mother Church, its imposing Extension, and Mrs. Eddy's former home at 385 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, which is used as the official residence for the church's First Reader.

The decision to sell Mrs. Eddy's homes was "not driven by financial necessity," Odegaard said. "We have taken significant and visible steps to address our financial picture. Our current position is stable."

This is not the first time the Christian Science church has disposed of one of Mrs. Eddy's homes. In 1917, church officials razed Mrs. Eddy's favorite home which was located in Concord, N.H. A retirement home for Christian Scientists was built on the property, which the church later sold.

Historical documents indicate that Mrs. Eddy's views on the Lynn house evolved. At first, she encouraged students who explored the idea of preserving the house after she moved out. But in 1896, she sent a telegram to the Clerk of her church, telling him to ask an influential group of members interested in the plan: "are you worshipping matter or spirit". She added, "you cannot serve two masters."

Church officials said no consideration was being given to selling the church edifices or Mrs. Eddy's Commonwealth Avenue residence.

The sale of Mrs. Eddy's homes is expected to be completed "more in terms of months than years," Talbot said. The process of moving employees into the Publishing House "will probably take 18 months," he said. Timing on the sale of the Washington building is to be determined.

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